Tonight’s Sunday dinner was all the elegance and food-lovin’ warmth I demand for my final weekend meal. But it was also surprising easy, and surprisingly cheap — frankly, it could qualify as a Weeknight Wondermeal, given it required only a few purchased ingredients, cost less than $25, and took less than an hour to make. Anyhow, it included the delightful, and heretofore unattended to in Lolita’s kitchen (fulfilling my goal to use a new ingredient or technique each week) variety of poultry known as the petit poulet, or Cornish game hen. I just recently stumbled upon an historic and if-it’s-not-yet-it-sure-should-be canonical exemplar of food writing (such an inelegant term): Michael Paterniti’s exhilarating description of Francois Mitterand’s last meal on earth, from Esquire Magazine’s 1 May 1998 issue. READ IT. You must. From it I learned of the ortolon, the ultimate culinary delight: an exquisite mouthful of whole fattened, brandied, and roasted miniature songbird – apparently, the richest gastronomic experience Western civilization has to offer. Although I’ve been eying the starlings that flitter and tweerp in the bushes I walk by each morning (same size, right?), my instinct for self-preservation, and respect for civilized urban behavior, lead me to the next best – and easily accessible – thing: the Cornish game hen. My idea was simple: a hen (flavorfully roasted), by a haystack (of fried potato straws, made extra special by virtue of a duck-fat sizzle), in an earthy yard (a pillow of mushroom puree), next to field of cover crop (of snappy, peppery EVOO’s alfalfa sprouts). Winner Winner Sunday Chicken Dinner!
Spring Game Hens in Lemon and Thyme, with Duck Fat Fried Potato Haystacks and Shitake Cream Puree
2 small Cornish game hens (these are slightly under 1lb each)
1 large shallot
3 cloves garlic
1 bay leaf
6-8 oz shitake mushrooms
2 cups chicken stock
1 cup heavy cream
3 large russet potatoes
1 cup duck fat
cracked black pepper
fresh alfalfa sprouts
These little babies were free-range, vegetable fed, naturally raised chickadees, and I did love them. Don’t know if they were male or female (they may be called hens, but in all actuality, some of them are runty roosters), but I stripped them mercilessly of their plastic modesty wrappers, and hosed ‘em down like Rambo at the Hope lock-up.
Even though Cornish game gens are really just little chickens (and not from Cornwall – but originally from Connecticut), their meat under the skin is a wee bit purple, hinting at more-than-just-simple chicken super-richness to come after roasting. I would like to try squab sometime, too – I gather those cute little baby pigeons are mostly dark meat, too. I pat them both dry with paper towels…
… shove a wedge of lemon and a few sprigs of thyme up each well-salted and well-peppered cavity…
… then I truss ‘em both up good, fold their wings down under ‘em, douse them with EVOO, and scatter them with sea salt and cracked black pepper. I then place my dish into a 375 degree oven, and roast for the next hour.
My “yard” was going to be composed of a rich mushroom cream sauce. I purchased some beautiful shitake mushrooms, and, along with some thyme, shallot, and garlic, I had all the earthiness I needed.
These are just beautiful — meaty, firm-fleshed, and hearty.
I start by sweating my diced shallots and minced garlic in EVOO over medium heat, then I add a few sprigs of thyme before…
… throwing in my mushrooms, a bay leaf, and my chicken stock. I cover this, and set to simmer until the mushrooms are softened — about 30 minutes. Right before service, I’m going to remove the stems and bay leaf from the mix, move everything to a deep sided saucepan, then burr it with my hand-blender. I’ll put it back on medium heat, add my heavy cream, whisk it together once again until it reaches a thick, smooth consistency – almost like a porridge.
But for now, I’ve trimmed my potatoes into rough rectangles, and, using the largest setting on my mandoline, I slice them into thick sheets…
… then I cut them into thin strips. I float these in water, until everything is cut, and then I rinse everything in cold water before…
… I spread them out on paper towels and pat them dry as much as possible.
I roasted a duck a few weeks ago (and it was good), and I preserved the rendered fat which, I admit, has been burning a hole in my fridge (to co-opt the phrase). I thought the duck fat would add the je ne sais quoi my fries needed to elevate them above the norm. I heat the fat to very high — almost smoking — before I slide my spuds into the sizzling bath…
Bubble bubble toil and quack – my spud spears sizzle spectacularly in their searing hot-tub of duck fat. I cook each batch until crispy, lift them with a mesh screen to drain, then toss them with sea salt and set on paper towels until they’re all fried up.
I trim (almost all) the butcher’s string from my bird, and let it rest for a few moments before moving it to my plate which is layered with the piping hot, creamy mushroom base. I loosely haystack my fries alongside, and create a nest of alfalfa sprouts dressed with EVOO, sea salt, and a lemon wedge. Using a deep tablespoon, I drizzle some of the hen drippings over my bird right before I set her in front of Clayton’s ravenous visage, as he’s poised with fork and knife, his napkin tucked into place, and his mouth open and salivating. Fork and knife? Totally unnecessary! With a wee twist of forefinger and thumb, each leg slides out of its boney sheath, the quivering, juicy fowl flesh steaming and scented of lemon and thyme. The skin is crispy and delicious, and each forkful/fingerful is slathered with yummy earthy mushroom umame, the crispy duck-fried French fries are redolent of the bird’s rich interior, and the peppery bursting cold green of the alfalfa sprouts adds just the right snap and sinew to the total texture of the plate. It’s not an ortolon, but each bite of this succulent bird reminds me that smaller IS better. At 4’10″ tall, such reassurances are always welcome – just like this dinner.